Posted by: Korry | February 7, 2012

Techie Tuesday: Expecting the Unexpected

Airline flying is boring. That may sound crazy coming from me, but it’s true. With safety ratings far better than 99.999%, thousands of flights take off and land safely every day, which for an airline pilot, means things are often pretty routine and–dare I say it–boring on the flight deck. Even so, our job is to expect the unexpected, which comes in handy when you get a trip like the one I just finished–three days and seven legs worth of non-stop unexpectedness.

Today, for Techie Tuesday, I want to bring these past few days to life so that you can see exactly what it’s like on three very UN-boring days on the line.

Day one started with a 9:30AM departure to Cleveland. After hand-flying our 737 off the runway and up to about 10,000 feet into the crisp winter air, I reached up to turn on the “B” autopilot…but it wasn’t to be. The autopilot disconnect buzzer sounded, warning both of us that someone needed to keep hold of the controls. After two more tries, I accepted defeat and turned on the “A” autopilot instead. One inoperative autopilot really isn’t a big deal since we have two. But it was a sign of things to come.

Shortly after arriving in Cleveland, the gate agent came to the flight deck and said, “Hey guys, you’ll have the FAA in the cockpit to Houston.” Just perfect. More unexpectedness. The FAA does line checks all the time to monitor both pilots and airlines to ensure they’re in compliance with all the rules and regulations. Most of the time, a fed on the jumpseat isn’t much of a big deal, but just as you don’t probably like having your boss stand over you at work, neither do I…especially when they have the power to take my license away on the spot.

Thankfully, the flight went well. We packed up our flight cases and did the “bag drag” to our next plane. After another preflight and another completed boarding, we were ready to go. We pushed back from the gate and were cleared by our ground team to start our engines. This is when the major unexpectedness happened.

We started to spin up the left engine. At 25% power, we added the fuel and turned on the left ignitor…but no ignition. We cut off the fuel and the ignitor and kept the motor spinning to help clear out the fuel we just put into the engine but didn’t use. Take two. Engine spins up, we add fuel and ignition…but again, no light off. Time to call maintenance. They suggest we do exactly the same thing again. Strike three.

Thinking our issue may be a bad ignitor, they ask us to try one more time only this time we should use the right ignitor. The engine spins up, we add the fuel and ignition and then…

“FIRE!!! FIRE!!! FIRE!!!” yells the ramper.

Let me tell you…THAT will get your attention! We shut off the fuel and ignition immediately, and thankfully the fire went away.

To make a long story short, we end up returning to the gate to allow maintenance to inspect the engine. They found a faulty left ignitor and tell us that the fire was most likely not a true engine fire but rather just the excess fuel that hadn’t cleared from the first three engine start attempts. That meant we didn’t damage the multi-million dollar engine, but just to be sure, we deplaned the passengers did a test run of the engine. Sure enough, everything worked perfectly now that a functioning ignitor was used.

Thankfully, the rest of the trip to Dallas went great…as did the 5:30am departure back to Houston until we unexpectedly flew through an incredibly bumpy cloud that we didn’t see in the darkness and that didn’t show up on our weather radar either. Turbulence doesn’t normally bother me, but this wasn’t just a little light turbulence. For just a few seconds, the plane bounced around quite a bit. Our immediate concern was safety of the flight attendants and passengers. Luckily, everyone was fine. The worst part was a galley cart tipping over and some coffee ending up on the ceiling.

Our next flight that afternoon gave us a reprieve from the unexpectedness, but the next morning gave us one more surprise. Just after landing, a silver fox decided to enter the runway seemingly hoping to play chicken with our jet! (Bad call, in my humble opinion!). I aggressively hit the brakes and was able to maneuver the plane slightly to the right in order to miss the fox–who had decided to keep moving off the runway.

Expecting the unexpected is a big part of a pilot’s job, but it still catches you by surprise. Months will pass and everything goes perfectly to plan. Then on one three-day trip, all sorts of unexpected events seem to pop up.

The trip was a good reminder that I can never let my guard down. Sometimes the unexpectedness is an equipment malfunction or a surprise cockpit visitor. Sometimes its a potentially critical emergency or some other bizarre situation. But if you’re expecting the unexpected–in an airplane or in your personal life–you’re ready to take on the new challenge and see it through to a successful conclusion.

That’s a lesson we can all use now and then.

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Responses

  1. […] last week’s Techie Tuesday feature, I wrote about a crazy three day trip I recently flew that included a problem getting one of our engines to start correctly. Since today […]


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